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New 3G Phones Boast Satellite Roaming

Two mobile satellite communications companies plan to launch competing billion-dollar satellites that might reinvigorate the market for satellite-linked mobile phones in 2009, according to the Associated Press.

TerraStar Corp. and SkyTerra Communications will launch a total of three of the largest commercial satellites in history into space this summer, their 60-foot gold mesh receptors aimed squarely at the U.S. The result: sat-link phones that won’t be much larger than traditional mobile phones, complete with 3G radios. When the phones are within range of cell towers, they connect with normal wireless technology; when they’re out of range, they contact the satellites for a connection.

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In the past, satellite phone-makers lagged in development because of the unwieldy size and excessive cost of their devices, and the substantial overhead involved in satellite network upkeep. But the days of $1,000 satellite phones, once the province of military operatives and contractors in extreme conditions, may be giving way to a new era of universal devices. An example: TerreStar’s first prototype handset, that runs Windows Mobile, boasts a QWERTY keypad, has a built-in antenna and costs $700. And, TerreStar has a roaming agreement with AT&T for non-satellite calls.

For now, this generation of satellite phones will work only within a line of sight of their satellites–which is to say, only in North America. But should these two companies launch more satellites for worldwide coverage, their devices could see more mainstream adoption. What’s more likely: acquisition by a major telecom looking for the final trump card in coverage area.CD